BOSTON -- You could hear an audible groan inside TD Garden when Marcus Smart threw away an inbounds pass with the Boston Celtics clinging to a one-point lead with just over a minute to go in Wednesday's national TV tilt with the Indiana Pacers. With the Celtics stumbling their way through a four-game losing streak that had featured less-than-crisp late-game execution, it felt as if things were about to fall apart again.
But Jae Crowder insists no such thoughts entered his mind, that he never considered, 'Oh no, here we go again.' Instead, Crowder calmly retreated on defense, stepped up to help a recovering Smart on a hard-charging Paul George, and brazenly swiped the ball as George looked to pass to an open teammate alone in the corner.
Crowder collected his dribble, timed his steps, and delivered a layup that returned TD Garden to the delirium that had existed before Smart's giveaway, when both Amir Johnson and Smart had also produced steal/score combinations to help Boston erase a three-point deficit with under two minutes to play. In fact, Boston had four such steal/score sequences over a 93-second span, helping the Celtics emerge with a much-needed 103-94 triumph over the visiting Pacers.
Thomas, who scored a team-high 28 points on 9-of-18 shooting, said the only time he could remember such a crazy sequence was on an Xbox.
"That was like a video game," Thomas said. "I've definitely seen it on one of the video games I've played. That was crazy."
Said Smart: "We just understood that we couldn't lose this game."
The Celtics were down three with under three minutes to play when Monta Ellis' pick-and-roll feed to Ian Mahinmi was a bit too strong and bounced off the big man's hands. Both Avery Bradley and Crowder rushed toward the loose ball. Bradley wiped out, slowing the pack of Pacers behind him and allowing Crowder to get the ball with a head of steam and deliver a one-handed flush at the opposite end.
The Pacers' lead was still at three when Johnson, who had a bit of a career night in posting 14 points, 18 rebounds, and 6 assists, jumped a lazy feed from Ellis to Mahinmi above the 3-point arc. Johnson raced in alone before delivered a gentle two-handed dunk with 1:46 to play.
Indiana went right back to the well, and while Ellis was able to get the ball to Mahinmi this time, it was Smart's turn to jump another pass to the opposite wing, and his layup with 1:32 left had Boston out front 95-94.
Ellis missed a jumper at the opposite end -- simply getting off a shot was a victory for the Pacers -- and Brad Stevens elected to call timeout to draw something up for his team. It backfired when Smart's inbounds attempt was grabbed by George, who was defending the pass.
But unlike recent games, where the Celtics were the ones making the pivotal late-game miscue, Boston utilized tenacious small-ball defense to fluster the Pacers.
"We needed that. We needed to get back on track on that," said Smart, who noted that Indiana ran the same play multiple times late in the game, which allowed Boston to jump the passing lanes. "The last couple of games we've been losing late in the second half [or] down the stretch in the fourth quarter. Teams have been going off and scoring more than they should on us, so we just understood that we needed to bring that identity back to us, especially late in games."
Added Smart: "Everybody was out there talking, 'We need this game. We can't lose this game. Somebody's got to make a play.' And four different guys made four different plays in under a minute and a half."
The Celtics didn't just end a four-game losing streak, they shuffled themselves one game above .500 and moved a half-game back of the crowded playoff pack in the Eastern Conference. There's renewed energy around the team because it has found something with the three-guard, small-ball lineups that Stevens has deployed often the past two games.
Before Wednesday's tilt, Indiana coach Frank Vogel noted that Boston's three-guard lineup of Crowder, Smart, and Bradley was full of "pitbulls." Added Vogel: "The defensive pressure that their guards bring to the table is unparalleled in this NBA season. They have great defensive guards. It's a big reason for their season."
The Celtics entered Wednesday's game forcing a league-best 17.1 turnovers per game this season. Against the Pacers, Boston forced 20 turnovers leading to 36 points, or more than a third of Boston's total offensive output.
"It was all heart and hustle, not quitting," Johnson said. "Even though we missed some tough shots and had some turnovers, we were able to get back on defense and get some steals. That's been our main thing, even when the calls don't go our way, or we argue with the refs or whatever it is, we still have to play defense and we showed that tonight."
George (23 points, 10 rebounds) had a monster third quarter (17 points) in helping the Pacers rally from as much as 12 down to surge ahead in the second half. But Boston simply couldn't let this one get away.
"I was fighting [the notion that Boston might give another game away,]" Crowder said. "I didn't want to think about that. I was just trying to stay positive, saying we were going to win it and pull through. We got to do it together. That's what I kept saying. I wasn't thinking about what happened before."
Has Crowder ever seen a defensive flurry quite like what Boston produced in that 93-second span?
"I was so locked in on Paul George, to be honest with you. I just heard the crowd go crazy on a few of them and I looked up and we had steals," Crowder said. "I was able to get a few and it was a great stretch. I've never been a part of anything like it.
"It was like night and day from what we were doing. I think all five guys really wanted to win. We were really hungry and so locked in on the game plan and what we had to do to get this win and it really showed up late."
Now the Celtics, who now sit third in the NBA in defensive rating, want to bottle up Wednesday's late-game tenacity.
"To win that way, it definitely give you confidence," Thomas said. "I've never seen a team win the way we did tonight, especially four straight steals."